“Working on your mental fitness is a great preventive strategy... it's something you can do any time.”
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – or so the saying goes. A cliché it may be but it resonated on the belief the brain stopped changing once we reached a certain age. But actually new research reveals this is not the case. The brain can and does change throughout life. It is adaptable like plastic.
Neuroscientists call this “neuroplasticity” – literally flexible thinking.
Bek Smith is a fitness leader, physiotherapist and psychology educator. Her understanding of the mind and body leads her to believe not only can the mind change, it can become fitter.
“Some of the pathways are well established, like well-worn roads or super highways,” she says.
“Our habits – which can be productive or unproductive habits – are represented by these pathways, and lead to how we think, feel and behave.”
But Bek suggests thinking of our brain as a power grid. There are billions of pathways in our power grid - and each has the ability to light up every time we think about doing something.
“When we do something differently, different neurons start to light up in our power grid,” she says.
“We start to pave new roads, and the more often we use these new pathways, the more our old pathways weaken. The process of neuroplasticity is about weakening old connections and strengthening new ones, by practicing new thoughts, new emotions and new actions.”
An ounce of prevention
Learning a new skill in the workplace, sticking to a diet, or choosing to take the stairs instead of the lift all serve to build new pathways. Bek also says neuroscience can be used to improve mental fitness, which can make us more resilient to mental health issues.
“Working on your mental fitness is a great preventive strategy,” she says. “Instead of waiting until a crisis hits before you start to work on your fitness, it's something you can do any time so you build yourself up to be stronger, to be more flexible, to have more stamina, to be more robust. Very much like you would with your body.”
For Bek, that awareness came at a personal cost: “Unfortunately, I didn't realise there were things I could be doing for my mental fitness until I actually found myself at a crisis point. So I'm really passionate to share the message that we can actually engage in preventive mental fitness strategies rather than just reactive strategies for our mental health.”
Our brains are like our bodies. Just as we can exercise our physical body to help our health, we can also exercise our mind. This doesn’t mean it will stop us from getting unwell, just as going to the gym won’t prevent the flu. But it does build resilience and aid recovery.
Bek says while you might still get sick and come down with a bout of depression, the fitter you are and the more strategies and skills you have in your toolkit, the more likely you are to recover from that illness and recover from it more quickly as well.
So, how can we improve our mental fitness? According to Bek there’s no one exercise plan for everyone. The three key areas of mental fitness are strength, flexibility and endurance. Within those areas different elements hold relative importance depending on individual’s needs.
Bek believes mental strength is about being clear with ourselves - and about ourselves. It invollves understanding our identity and our character, being aware of our own internal processes, and expressing them authentically to others.
While mental strength is about knowing and expressing ourselves, mental flexibility is different.
“It's about being able to pivot your views and being able to reshape the way that you interact with the world,” Bek says.
Flexibility calls for individuals to be more creative in our thought processes, Bek explains. This could be by engaging in artistic pursuits or problem solving. It can also be about reframing a thought you're having if it’s no longer serving you well.
Compassion is a big part of flexibility, as is intuition.
“Intuition for many people is seen as a soft, fluffy notion. Whereas for me, the understanding around intuition we're starting to build through the scientific models of neuroscience comes from understanding that it's actually information your subconscious mind is giving you,” says Bek.
“Intuition is about listening to the signals your body is giving you because it's starting to receive information from the subconscious brain as well.”
To keep the mind strong and flexible, we also need endurance. Our core values and knowing what’s important to us play a role.
Bek believes in the importance of understanding our values: “It helps with our endurance, because if you know what your inherent motivators are and what's really driving you, that can help you make it through really challenging times.”
Another component of mental endurance is permitting yourself to have time to rest and relax, even if it's just in small micro doses throughout the day.
Bek says “before you step into a meeting, think about taking 30 seconds to regroup, take a breath, and give yourself a little bit of space to breathe and then go in.”
Mental endurance is also about cultivating hope, optimism and positivity. It can help to underpin those other components around strength and flexibility.
Mental wellbeing is important for all, as is taking a small amount of time to understand who we are as a person and how we can exercise our minds as well as our bodies.
Bek’s parting advice is to adopt the approach of small, regular bouts of exercise for your mind.
“Don’t fall into the trap of attending a weekend retreat and believing that one big ‘workout’ will make you mentally fit,” she says. “Small, regular and consistent efforts will make a much bigger difference. And will help you have stronger footing if or when life throws you a curve ball.”
Bek Smith recently spoke at an ANZ event for World Mental Health Day. You can find out more about Bek’s work by watching her TEDx talk or visiting her website.
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